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Nuclear Powered Vehicles: Cheap, Sustainable, and Potentially Deadly

Nearly 80 years after the invention of the first nuclear reactor, where are all the nuclear-powered ships, cars, and planes? Nuclear energy is cleaner than the energy generated by fossil fuels. Moreover, it weighs less than fossil fuels and generates more substantial amounts of power with minimal pollution. 

Unlike vehicles that run on petrol, gas, or diesel, you could potentially spend years driving a nuclear-powered vehicle before having to refuel it. Highly enriched uranium is an extremely potent source of energy, such that just one pound of it could power an aircraft carrier or a submarine. Experts at Stanford University believe that a nuclear-powered car would only need to be refueled once every five years.

But the question remains – where are all these ultra-clean, super-fast, and cost-effective nuclear vehicles? Is their development being quashed by Big Oil to maintain their fossil fuel-driven bottom lines? Or is the nuclear-powered Tesla Model N being held hostage by the environmental lobby? 

Well, as it turns out, building a safe and functioning nuclear-powered car might be slightly harder than scientists originally anticipated. This is not to say that nuclear-powered vehicles do not exist, but they are far from being commonplace. In this video, we’ll try to understand why that is and what the future might hold for this sector. 

Nuclear Powered Concept Cars of the Atomic Age

The 1950s and 60s, often dubbed the ‘atomic age’, saw a lot of optimism among businesses and governments regarding the future potential of nuclear power. Many experts opined that nuclear reactors would end energy scarcity around the world and would lead to limitless consumption, with autonomous kitchens and flying cars becoming commonplace within decades – all of it powered by clean and ecofriendly nuclear energy.

This collective euphoria was further fueled by the development of nuclear-powered ships and submarines during the mid-twentieth century. The USS Nautilus (launched on January 21, 1954) was the world’s first nuclear submarine, while the first merchant ship powered by nuclear energy was called the NS Savannah (launched on July 21, 1959). 

NS Savannah exterior
NS Savannah exterior.By Acroterion, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

These innovations in transportation technology – combined with the generally optimistic outlook on nuclear power – inspired car designers and manufacturers to consider the possibility of atomic four-wheelers. In theory, these cars would be fueled by a consistent reaction, would rarely need refueling, and would produce no harmful byproducts. Many were of the opinion that nuclear cars – in conjunction with the new interstate highway system in the US – would revolutionize mobility.

During these short-lived years of optimism and relative naiveté, many nuclear-powered car concepts were developed by automakers like Ford, Fiat, and Studebaker-Packard. Since then, that optimism has waned to a considerable degree, thanks in part to devastating nuclear disasters at Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island. 

Still, it doesn’t hurt to take a trip down memory lane to check out some of the creative nuclear-powered car concepts that automakers of the atomic age came up with. 

Ford Nucleon

Nucleon at the Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin
Nucleon at the Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin.By EmptyTerms. is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Of all the nuclear-powered concept cars dreamed up by auto designers in the 50s and 60s, the Ford Nucleon is perhaps the most well-known. A 3/8 scale model of this futuristic vehicle was built by Ford designers in 1958. The nuclear reactor powering the Ford Nucleon would be located at the rear of the vehicle and would have its atomic core periodically recharged. 

The model was partially developed as a research tool for scientists trying to downsize nuclear reactors and make them safe enough for everyday civilian use. The Ford designers predicted that the Nucleon would have a range of approximately 5,000 miles or a little over 8,000 kilometers. Once that limit was reached, no refueling would be necessary, as the old reactor would simply be replaced by a new one. The scale model of the Nucleon can currently be viewed at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. 

Arbel Symétric

The Arbel Symétric was designed in the mid-1950s by a now-defunct French research and development company. The company was interested in creating a passenger vehicle which saved on fuel and required little maintenance. According to the designers, the Arbel was to be powered by the Genestatom, a 40-KW nuclear thermal generator that made use of radioactive cartridges. 

A hybrid petrol-electric vehicle made from fiberglass and plastic, the Arbel was to be light, affordable, environmentally sustainable, and truly ahead of its time in every imaginable way. Some of its other state-of-the-art features included glow-in-the-dark phosphorescent bumpers and swiveling captain’s seats. Unfortunately (or perhaps not), the French government did not support the use of nuclear fuel on public roads, which prevented the Arbel from ever being produced into a full-sized car. 

Simca Fulgur

Designed by renowned French automotive designer Robert Opron, the Simca Fulgur was a concept car first displayed in 1959 at the Geneva Auto Show. The car would have been powered by nuclear energy and included various specs and features that were quite unheard of in the automotive market at the time. The model was produced by Simca, a company created by Italian automaker Fiat. 

Apparently, through the futuristic Simca Fulgur, the automakers wanted to showcase their vision of what cars would look like in the 21st century. The Fulgur would be guided by radar, incorporate voice-control technology, and would be balanced by gyroscopes while using only two wheels. The car was also supposed to have some sort of autopilot-based driver assistance system, although the exact details of this feature are unavailable. 

Studebaker-Packard Astral

This innovative prototype developed by Michigan-based Packard Motor Car Company was made in 1957 and unveiled at the South Bend Art Center in 1958. Taking inspiration from the world of science fiction, the Astral was supposed to be fully nuclear-powered and featured a single wheel balanced by gyroscopes. It was put on display at various auto shows and was said to be capable of hovering over water. 

To shield passengers from nuclear radiation, the car was to use a force field, which contemporary designers described as a ‘curtain of energy’. This protective energy curtain would also make vehicular collisions a thing of the past. The Astral was made from glass-reinforced plastic and was designed by Edward E. Herrmann, the then director of interior design at Studebaker-Packard. Currently, this iconic concept car can be found on display at the Petersen Auto Museum in Los Angeles.

Ford Seattle-ite XXI

Designed by Greek-American industrial designer Alex Tremulis, the Ford Seattle-ite XXI was the Ford Motor Company’s second attempt at developing a car powered by nuclear energy. It was first displayed at the Seattle World Fair on April 20, 1962. This concept car contained some innovative ideas that are now commonplace, such as interactive computer navigation, interchangeable fuel cell power units, and active four-wheel steering systems. 

A compact nuclear propulsion unit was to be used as the primary source of power for the vehicle. Fingertip steering and enhanced traction were some of the other advertised benefits of the Ford Seattle-ite XXI. One of its many fascinating aspects was that it was designed as a modular car, with the front of the vehicle breaking away from the passenger compartment for greater fuel economy, whenever needed. 

Nuclear Powered Ships

While nuclear-powered cars never really caught on due to a variety of factors that we will discuss later in this video, nuclear-powered ships were somewhat more popular. As mentioned earlier, the USS Nautilus and the NS Savannah were two of the first ships ever built with an atomic power source. 

Currently, there are more than 150 nuclear-powered ships around the world. While most of them are submarines, nuclear-powered warships, aircraft carriers, and icebreakers are also included in their ranks. Experts at the World Nuclear Association believe that fossil fuel scarcity will probably make marine nuclear propulsion much more commonplace in the future.  

The USS Nautilus

The USS Nautilus, developed by the United States, had an almost unlimited range and could stay underwater for great lengths of time, unlike its electric and diesel powered counterparts. This was because the submarine did not need to refuel or recharge its electric batteries, which made it unnecessary to resurface on a regular basis. Hence, while most submarines were designed to float on the surface and dive underwater on occasion, the Nautilus was designed to travel primarily underwater and resurface only when it was necessary or advantageous to do so (which it rarely was). 

The remarkable range and maneuverability that nuclear submarines offered soon had an effect on naval strategy and tactics. In 1958, a few years after being launched, the Nautilus became the first manmade vessel to reach the North Pole by traveling beneath the arctic ice. Nuclear-powered submarines could easily travel the globe undetected because they did not need refueling, had almost unlimited range, and could remain underwater indefinitely. 

This gave the nations which had them a distinct advantage, as enemy ships (both military and commercial) were vulnerable to submarine attack at all times and in every part of the globe. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Soviet Union developed its own nuclear submarine (the unimaginatively named K-19) just a few years after the Nautilus was launched.

The NS Savannah

The NS Savannah, on the other hand, was proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955 as a luxury passenger-cargo liner powered by nuclear energy. It was part of his “Atoms for Peace” initiative, which aimed to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy for technological advancement. The construction of the ship was to be a joint project between the Maritime Administration, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the Department of Commerce. The ship comprised two steam turbines and one nuclear reactor, and underwent extensive sea trails upon completion, in order to ensure safety. Finally, it departed on its maiden voyage on August 20, 1962. 

The nuclear reactor powering the NS Savannah was housed in a cylindrical containment vessel and used uranium oxide fuel for propulsion. Thirty-two fuel bundles were inserted into the reactor, which would power the ship for more than 3½ years. Designed to be sleek, white, and elegant, the $46.9 million nuclear ship offered some of the finest passenger accommodations ever seen before. The fuel core and the nuclear reactor cost more than $28 million to construct and install, which made the Savannah one of the most expensive ships built during the 20th century.  

The Advantages and Drawbacks of Nuclear Powered Vehicles

There can be no doubt that nuclear power is infinitely cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable than coal, oil, or natural gas. Compared to fossil fuels, nuclear reactors also offer a significantly higher energy density. Energy efficiency is further enhanced because nuclear vehicles do not need to carry fossil fuels. This minimizes the weight of the vehicle and saves a lot of space, allowing for much greater storage capacity. 

Powered by nuclear energy, a car could travel hundreds of thousands of miles without needing to be refueled. A commercial jetliner outfitted with a small nuclear reactor could fly from London to Sydney without having to land midway for refueling. A nuclear warplane, on the other hand, could stay up in the skies almost indefinitely to establish air superiority over any battlefield.

Perhaps the greatest benefit, however, would come from nuclear-powered cargo ships. More than 10,000 liters of diesel can be consumed by a large container ship in a single hour. All the cars in the world do not produce as much pollution as just 15 of the largest cargo ships currently being operated. Considering that there are thousands of container ships transporting goods around the world, substituting diesel with nuclear energy as their primary source of power could greatly minimize greenhouse gas emissions. 

The major problem with nuclear-powered vehicles (and the reason why they haven’t yet become mainstream) is radiation. Nuclear radiation can be deadly. Poor shielding and containment leaks could not only harm the environment but also lead to a messy end for everyone in or near the vehicle. And car crashes would be even more dangerous than they are now, because every absentminded (or inebriated) driver could potentially cause a minor nuclear holocaust. 

Appropriate nuclear shielding is possible, but common shielding materials like lead and concrete are often extremely heavy. Most cars and aircrafts can’t afford to carry that extra weight without compromising their performance and efficiency. Moreover, modern nuclear reactors are huge, require large amounts of water for cooling, and need to be kept inside sealed and fortified buildings to prevent containment leaks. It is very unlikely, therefore, that one such reactor will be installed inside a regular car or truck, at least in the foreseeable future.

Still, there’s no reason to lose hope. Inventor Charles Stevens of the Massachusetts-based R&D company ‘Laser Power Systems’ recently proposed an accelerator-driven thorium laser power generation system, which could potentially power future emission-free cars that would never need to be recharged or refueled. As thorium is less radioactive than uranium, the risks associated with the vehicle would also be far lower. Let’s just hope this nuclear-powered concept car doesn’t meet the same fate as its predecessors.

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